Monday, December 28, 2009

Interfaith Amigos & the Future of Interfaith Dialogue

[Disclaimers: A) I am a friend of Rabbi Ted Falcon, one of the Interfaith Amigos. B) I spend most of my time and energy engaged in interfaith dialogue.]

I’m listening to an On Point interview with the three Interfaith Amigos: Rabbi Ted Falcon, Sheikh Jamal Rahman, and Pastor Don Mackenzie. Great guys, all. Intelligent, warm, and filled with hope. Question after question is answered with care, calm, and a liberalism that, after a while, I find more than annoying.

As the interview goes on I learn that all the hate-filled, xenophobic, misogynist, and triumphalist aspects of these three Abrahamic faiths are either anachronisms to be abandoned, or particularist expressions of universal truths. In other words, to take but one example, when Christianity claims that Jesus is the sole means to salvation we are to understand this as addressed to Christians only, and not claiming that Jews and Muslims must come to God through Christ. Or when Jews claim to be God’s Chosen People we are told that God chooses everyone for something, and hence the chosenness of the Jews does not exclude the fact that others are also God’s chosen.

This kind of liberal niceness is totally disingenuous. If Christian claims are only true for Christians, then they aren’t really true. And if God chooses everyone, then God really chooses no one which undermines the entirety of classical Judaism, to say nothing of contemporary Jewish claims to Israel as the Promised Land.

In other words, the Three Interfaith Amigos are amigos not because they have learned to transcend their differences, but because they have no differences. The religions these three clergymen represent are so liberal as to be almost interchangeable.

Once you abandon the exclusivist claims of each of the Abrahamic religions, you have to ask yourself why you would choose to maintain loyalty to one or another among them? The answer cannot be that one is true, while the others are false. They are all saying the same thing in different ways, so the only attractor is that you prefer one flavor of faith to another. Can it be that simple? Am I Jewish because I prefer it to Christianity the way I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to plain chocolate chip ice cream? And if that is all it is, is it so shocking and novel that I can have friends who prefer another flavor, and even can befriend those lactose intolerant types who refuse to eat ice cream at all? Is this worthy of special praise and an hour with Tom Ashbrook on NPR?

I am neither surprised nor impressed that Ted, Jamal, and Don get along, and agree on essentials. I expect no less from well-educated, liberal, middle class Americans. The fact that they call the exclusivist claims of their traditions “untruths” rather than hard truths suggests that the only way for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to become friends is to deny as false the claims most central to each faith.

Where does this leave interfaith dialogue?

This is not an academic question for me. I work with teachers from many traditions, and we, too, get along and agree, and we do so by negating the core of our respective faiths and upholding a liberal universalism instead. We begin with the modernist assumption that there is Truth and that all religions point to the same Truth, and interpret our respective religions in light of this. But, with the exception of Hinduism which actually says this (Truth is one, different people call it by different names), this assumption does not come from our respective religions. It comes from liberal, democratic capitalism that reduces everything to a matter of taste.

So what am I left with? Questions mostly.

Is true interfaith dialogue happening among liberals, or must we wait for fundamentalists to take one another on around the table? Does it matter that liberals of different tribes can get along? Are liberal religionists clinging to outmoded faith labels when in fact they (we) are all liberal humanists? Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?

I don’t have answers to these and similar questions. If you do, please share them with me. And if the three Interfaith Amigos read this blog, please help me understand. My own spiritual path depends on it.

13 comments:

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav,

There is a reason that liberal religion is in decline and you have clearly spelled it out here as well as in other posts since Sukkot. It is because liberal religion (be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam) DOES NOT inspire gut level convictions with its claims.

In contradistinction, The megachurch and Habad
are two segments of religious life that are measurably growing. As I wrote in a previous post:

"The ten word mission statement of Willow Creek Community Church (a megachurch in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago) is “to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus.” Yes it’s evangelistic and so is Habad. Willow and Habad not only understand that opportunity, they both have kishke level convictions about their obligations “lo l’hibatel” (not to desist) from seizing that opportunity.

Quite simply there can be no renewal of non orthodox Judaism or its synagogue without an antecedent non Orthodox analog/equivalent to kishke level convictions."

Biv’racha,
Jordan

dtedac said...

Rabbi Rami,

Here is my take on your questions:

You ask:
"Is true interfaith dialogue happening among liberals, or must we wait for fundamentalists to take one another on around the table? Does it matter that liberals of different tribes can get along?"

I believe that it does matter that liberals of different faiths are talking. The alternative would be no dialogue at all, which is what you would likely get with the fundamentalists.

"Are liberal religionists clinging to outmoded faith labels when in fact they (we) are all liberal humanists?"

There is still much to be gained from our native faiths, as you told me once. Re-evaluating our faiths is essential to prevent their becoming obsolete or irrelevant. As long as we identify ourselves with a label that reflects our past, our roots and our heart, they do mean something.

"Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?"

I say yes. We can honor what is good, spiritual and healthy in our tradition. I recall one of your previous blog entries where you said "My religion is love and my tradition is Jewish." I took that to heart. There is a core to each faith expression that can embrace a universal message and yet retain a unique character.

Finally, there have always been exclusivist and triumphalist stances within faiths, but there are two points to remember about them: firstly, they really are sometimes meant for "internal use only", and secondly, for each of these stances there are inclusivist and universal stances in most traditions to balance them out. These may be the minority view, but they are still valid points of view.

Hope some of this makes sense.

Shalom,
David

Rabbi Rami said...

I couldn't have gotten two more articulate and yet opposite responses. Thanks. I wonder if Reform Judaism was a radical even fundamental movement in the days of the Pittsburgh Platform (late 1890s). Here the mission was: "Creating a Judaism for the Sovereign Self." That may still be compelling to many, though I doubt it is still the mission of reform. Any thoughts?

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav and All,

Rabbi Rami wrote/asked: "I wonder if Reform Judaism was a radical even fundamental movement in the days of the Pittsburgh Platform (late 1890s). Here the mission was: 'Creating a Judaism for the Sovereign Self.' That may still be compelling to many,"

'Compelling to many' as measured how?
Rabbi Rami continued:

"...though I doubt it is still the mission of reform."

And that is the problem that Reform and other
liberal religion has: no clear, crisp, concise and compelling raison d'etre that the folks out in the land of the fourth son of the Pesah Haggadah, would be willing to give a hoot no less form and have convictions. As King Solomon (one of my finest students) wrote long ago in Mishlei
(Proverbs) 29:18 "B'ein hazon yipara' 'am." "In the absence of vision people will be unrestrained."

Rabbi Rami asked: "Any thoughts?"

You wrote about this in response to my post responding to your post "Have You Seen This Missing Jew?" Our exchange follows with your
words in quotes and mine in between:

"This is a Judaism of the sovereign self. The self trumps everything else. "

And how does humility (one of the big three in Michah 6:8) factor in here? You continued:

"Orthodoxy sublimates the self to community and community to God and Torah. This is something that the sovereign self cannot abide."

In your case, a sovereign self with a life long journey of intent to create a meaningful contemporary Judaism; a Judaism that matters not only for yourself but for others as well. What about those "just Jews" who like the fourth son in the Pesah haggadah, don't even know the questions? Who's around to "open their mouths" as the haggadah teaches? This is why I challenged you a while ago to join me in leaving the grandstands and getting back in the game. You continued:

You continued:

"So liberal rabbinic Judaism may be dying."

Perhaps with it's demise humility can once again
become the pillar it ought to be. You continued:

"Perhaps something new will emerge."

Remember that Colonel Sanders emerged out of the grandstands at age 65. No chicken was he! You continued:

"One can only hope."

Hope alone is insufficient. If hope doesn't catalyze new action it will be as Dr. Laura once put it, "disappointment delayed."

Thanks for engaging with me on this. There is a non orthodox Judaism that matters that can capture the hearts and minds of the vast majority of disenchanted and disenfranchised "just Jews;" a Judaism that will inspire kishke level convictions.
Help me rediscover it for ourselves and others Rabbi Rami.

Bivracha,
Jordan

Patti said...

Firstly, I have to admit, this conversation is way over my head, so if my ignorance shows, please forgive me.

I have been thinking lately about God's non-dualism and our need to daily fight the chasm we put between deity and us. If we are all of God, should we be striving to span the gap between religions also? Should we try to stop focusing on the battle lines and fight the illusion of difference between ourselves?

Maybe non-dualism does not apply to humanity and my point is nothing but a ramble...help me work it out if you would.

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav,

You wrote/asked:

"I wonder if Reform Judaism was a radical even fundamental movement in the days of the Pittsburgh Platform (late 1890s). Here the mission was: 'Creating a Judaism for the Sovereign Self.'"

Nothing radical nor fundamental here. Just another
(this one 110 years old) in a long line of self-centered iterations of "it's about me" that continues with the navel gazing and syncretism of our time. All of this bears witness to the truth of the verse I quoted from the Biblical book of Judges in a previous post: ".....Everyone did what was right in her/his eyes." Judges 21:25b

In contradistinction, the first line of "The Purpose Driven Life" (the second best selling book of all time only exceeded by the Bible) by Pastor Rick Warren (Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Lake Forest CA) is: "It's not about you."

How refreshing and yes humbling in the
Michah 6:8 sense.

Happy New Year to all of us.

Biv'racha,
Jordan

Jordan said...

Shalom Patti,

You wrote: "Firstly, I have to admit, this conversation is way over my head, so if my ignorance shows, please forgive me."

As Elie Wiesel once stated and I paraphrase, the questions are always more important than the answers. You continued:

"I have been thinking lately about God's non-dualism and our need to daily fight the chasm we put between deity and us. If we are all of God, should we be striving to span the gap between religions also?"

I believe this is the objective of interfaith dialogue about which Rabbi Rami has been writing. You continued:

"Should we try to stop focusing on the battle lines and fight the illusion of difference between ourselves?"

Rabbi Rami's point seems to be that in order to do this the distinctives of the religious traditions themselves become marginalized, trivialized and thus near meaningless as they are replaced by an overarching milquetoast universalism. You continued:

"Maybe non-dualism does not apply to humanity and my point is nothing but a ramble...help me work it out if you would."

If non dualism is to be an all encompassing worldview then it must by definition include humanity.

I hope this helped.

Blessings,
Jordan

TheNote said...

I listened to that same program. I was riding in a car on my way home from work . . and, I got agitated pretty early in the conversation. I want interfaith to be much more - so, i started talking back to the radio . . (so? I'm goofy, what else is new?) I wanted a Hindu - and, almost as soon as I said that, a Hindu lady called in. The Amigos explained they started their group in response to 9/11 - I want interfaith to be more than 9/11 - I want us to share all the stories . . and relish where we have "local color" - and listen with our hearts - I want to hear the ancient stories and the stories to come and all the stories sandwiched between . . and, i want to hear, in my heart, the spaces inside, around and through all this sharing - where I'm certain the Holy One Lives .. . and, Rami . . I am totally grateful for you and your sharing . . I think a lot more because of you . . I ask more questions and look for new possibilities . .
thanks for letting me take part in this discussion.

Rabbi Rami said...

First, let me admit that I, too, talk back to the radio. Second, Patti's comment about getting beyond differences is right on target. If I believe that all is God, then I really have no need to promote interfaith. Perhaps the effort should be on trans-faith, ala Krishnamurti, and even Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadata Maharaj. While these last two gentlemen never denied their Indian/Hindu roots, they were no longer interested in promoting Hinduism.

As for Reform Judaism being just another "me" centered faith as opposed to Rick Warren's notion that "it's not about you," I think we have to be careful here.

First of all Christianity is all about "me" and "my" salvation. Whereas Judaism can point to communal salvation and Buddhism has the bodhisattva ideal of the sage who refused to enter Nirvana until all other sentient beings have done so, Christians have to work out a private salvation.

Second, talk aside, I'm not sure we can escape the self at all. That is to say, admitting that the self is sovereign may not be, as Jordan notes, radical— only honest.

Is it possible for me to subsume my self to a group? Can I simply abdicate responsibly for moral choice and do what God tells me to do? And even if I claim to be doing this, didn't I just choose the god I am surrendering to?

I think this is where serious contemplative practice comes in. Spiritual exercises aimed at kenosis, self-emptying- may allow us to drop the ego (who is dropping it?). This is why I prefer interfaith talk among mystics to that of mainstream clergy.

Anyway, I appreciated reading what you all have to say. Happy New Year

Patti said...

Thanks Jordan and Rami. Those comments do help.
"Is it possible for me to subsume my self to a group? Can I simply abdicate responsibly for moral choice and do what God tells me to do? And even if I claim to be doing this, didn't I just choose the god I am surrendering to?"
Rami, I know these questions are just stream of conscious wonderings, but I sense they come from a place of fear. Why would you ever have to subsume yourself to a group, etc.? Wouldn't unity be more freeing; less strangle holding what we suppose, more spacious mindedly letting go?

mimi said...

Rabbi Rami,
Greetings! First, let me express my deep gratitude to you; I enjoy your wide-ranging works and reflections so so much, and am always moved to think deeper and further, whether in harmonious lines or dissonant ones (the latter often being the most exciting). I am very nourished by your community of fellow travellers and feel myself to be one, and so thought I might join the conversation.

So I'll jump in! I locate myself as someone deeply concerned about all matters interfaith, which I wrestle with sometimes perhaps too much. I passionately feel that our future as a species within our earth community--and the future of all species--is dependent in large part on how we learn to live together across our narrative, symbolic, and ritual differences; and these differences move so deep. We may be one human family, but our root metaphors divide along potent boundaries, and are filled with potency. I take a stand on the potency for peace and, to quote Martin Luther King Jr., beloved community.

Two initial responses: I find this comment compelling: "Perhaps the effort should be on trans-faith, ala Krishnamurti, and even Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadata Maharaj."

And I find this comment disturbing: "First of all Christianity is all about "me" and "my" salvation." I would love to hear more about your reflections on this. What I perceive is that this is an example of "bad Christianity" and there are vast diversities of Christianities (as there are of any faith tradition). Quick references of examples to the contrary include process and ecological theologies...and the brave and other-oriented individuals living and serving from these matrices...
Shalom,
Mimi

RevTom said...

Rabbi Rami,

First, let me say how much I have enjoyed your books and other writings, and this blog. I really like your new title “Beyond Religion”.

You asked, “Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?”

For me, as an interfaith minister, my understanding of interfaith dialog is rooted in the motto of the The Seminary: "Never instead of, always in addition to . . ."

Geoffrey Parinder, in his book, "World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present" said 
"To study different religions need not imply infidelity to one's own faith, but rather it may be enlarged by seeing how other people have sought for reality and have been enriched by their search."

Interfaith dialog should never be about taking away – it is not about creating a new tradition or merging together into one common path. But rather, it is about adding another layer – the sharing of our understandings and our experiences so that we all may learn from each other, to grow in our own faith, and perhaps find it a little easier to travel our own path.

There is absolutely nothing more intensely personal than our connection with God, and each of our understandings of God is unique, because our experience of God is unique. Interfaith dialog should be about creating a safe space where people from all religions can reach out across their differences in understanding and communication, honoring the sacredness and uniqueness of each faith, while sharing and encouraging others to share their experience of God - so that together, we can learn and grow, and together seek the answers.

"Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I'll meet you there.” --Rumi

Namaste
Tom

dblatner said...

Rami, I have to say I'm really shocked at your words... and one word in particular: Calling the important interfaith work of your "friend" disingenuous is unfair at best and seems tainted with your own issues.

You don't like the Amigos' ability to interpret their own faiths, and focus on the core teachings they each believe are most important. Do you truly believe that the exclusive and separating teachings of religion are those that must command our primary attention?

The Amigos focus on "oneness" and universal truths. As Ted has pointed out, institutions (including religions) have egos that need defending, just like people. I believe that iIn interfaith discussions, it's helpful to recognize that, but look beyond (or deeper), toward the essentials of the faith.

Do you truly believe that your method of "negating the core of our respective faiths" is somehow more honest?

If listening to the Amigos or reading their work makes you uncomfortable, might it instead be the case that it's pushing buttons that you're not comfortable with in your self?

As for whether or not the discussion includes Hinduism and and a myriad other faiths, I think they would be the first to welcome discussions. But don't we have to start somewhere? Why complain when friends of three faiths make a start at a conversation that, of course, will expand over time?